#162: TO WAYFARERS A LIGHT. In the nineteen-sixties, the bugaboo word in the educational world (among others) was “relevance.” It was part of the battle-cry of the student dissidents in Paris, and by the seventies it was an everyday word on American campuses. Students wanted literature taught in a way that was relevant to their lives. Sounded great, and the noise made a certain amount of sense, and then degenerated into doctrinaire yowling by people who often had a pretty scant idea of what literature was or how it worked. I was reminded forcibly of the debate while rereading Helen Waddell’s collection More Latin Lyrics, a book sadly out of print (it had editions by Gollancz in England and W.W. Norton in the States), though it may still be picked up easily enough secondhand and online. Its disappearance is a small tragedy, and the book points up the notion of “relevance” in a way which has a double, and sorrowful, echo.
Helen Waddell was born in Tokyo to missionary parents, raised in Belfast, educated at Queen’s and at Somerville in Oxford. She became a medieval scholar and Latinist, and in the twenties her study The Wandering Scholars and her anthology Medieval Latin Lyrics reopened the world of the goliard poets to the reading public. She loved these poets and loved their poems, and rendered them into English with extraordinary grace and sense of identification. Against the odds the books attained great popularity and continue as some of the most charming and readable works on the period in English.
In London in the late thirties, Waddell could hear the oncoming thunder of World War Two—she had lived through one cataclysm and recognized the warning signs of another. Many of the lyrics she translated in this second volume are plainly connected with her fear of what was coming: her version of the passages from Petronius on the extravagance and corruption of Rome are as withering as Brecht ever thought to be. In the earlier poets we hear of the ruin of Rome; in the later Christian poets we are reminded how the early monasteries were easy prey for raids and war. Waddell translated a beautiful sheaf of poems by the early scholar Alcuin, and his shock at the sack of Lindisfarne (victim of the Norse pirates’ new ships that led them to open-sea sailing) reminded me of the terrible pity of the World War I monuments so common in England, that so painfully convey the terrible and devastated surprise at the mass deaths. Throughout we have a sense of Waddell gathering these wisely selected flowers as a kind of shoring-up against ruin: Paulinus on the destruction of Aquileia, Boethius in the dungeon, awaiting his assassins. Hildebert’s lines on Ecclesiastes she labels “The mood of Vichy.” Here too, fortunately, are some of the great Latin hymns and prayers: Ambrose, Prudentius, Marbod of Rennes; but even these are in mind of the fragility, the brevity of our lives. And there’s a little fragment, again from Alcuin, salvaged from a letter Waddell wrote to her sister Meg: “Come, let us make an end of singing and of grieving /But not an end of love.”
The manuscript of this second book was rescued and published after Waddell’s death by Dame Felicitas Corrigan, who became her biographer. She includes a few of Waddell’s own poems, including “Hitler Speaks,” which demonstrates in its full horror Hitler’s contempt for “this mewling Christian pity:” “O God, I had not thought a mouse could scream so loud.” And in Waddell’s fear of the oncoming war, I could find a terrible relevance to our own time of extravagance and corruption, and the fears I hear from my friends of the strange turn of the last few years, with its own threats and rages. “The Roman was the victor of the world…” There are in these verses, for all that they speak to our fears, the courage and the joy in everyday life that poetry poses against our terrors. The names, the identities of the tyrants and the barbarians change from year to year; the defense against these that poetry gives remains as it has been. Seamus Heaney once said at a reading, “This poem was written in hope, as all poems are.”
A passage from Columbanus, which I copied out from my first reading of the book forty years ago: “A road to life thou art, not Life…And there is no man makes his dwelling in the road, but walks there; and those who fare along the road have their dwelling in the fatherland. So thou art nought, O mortal life, naught but a road, a fleeting ghost, an emptiness, a cloud uncertain and frail, a shadow and a dream.”